Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. It was shared by a house church pastor who leads an urban church of young professionals and university students.
This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version.
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.
There are four basic aspects of the church: first, the church must be empowered by the Holy Spirit; second, the church must preach Jesus Christ; third, the church must administer the sacraments; and fourth, the church must be localized.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
How is discipleship related to these four aspects of the church? First, we must define discipleship. In Matthew 28:19-20, the Lord Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” These verses tell us the church will baptize disciples and teach them to observe all the Lord’s Word. In Acts 2:41-47, the believers who are baptized into the church devote themselves to obeying the apostles’ teachings and participating in the activities of fellowship, breaking bread, praying, and praising God. The apostles are making these new believers into disciples. They worship and listen to the apostles’ public teachings. They also observe the apostles’ teachings in private life, fellowship, eat meals, pray, and praise God together. They live to worship and honor God. According to this passage, I would define discipleship first broadly, and then more narrowly.
Broadly speaking, all church ministries – Sunday services, small groups, one-on-one interactions, and community services – are discipleship. Do not think your church does not do discipleship; your church does discipleship through these ministries. However, in a more narrow sense, intentional discipleship should be like what Jesus did with the apostles, with specific objects and targets, such as small group trainings and one-on-one discipleship. When we refer to discipleship today, this is usually what we mean. Sermons make disciples, but church members cannot build up a profound fellowship by only listening to the sermons. A church that lacked the communion that grows out of small group training and one-on-one discipleship would be unhealthy and feeble. Acts 2 tells us that discipleship is necessary to the life of the church, and is a mutually developed relationship.
Because of Adam’s sin, the relationships between humans and both God as well as their fellow humans has been broken, resulting in a world of competition and without harmony. Even the family is often full of strife. However, because of Jesus’ redemption, human beings are reconciled to God in Christ and their broken relationships are rebuilt, which brings about a loving community and kingdom. The church should be such a community: a kingdom established by Christ. As Christians, we should live in this kingdom, in a community where we love one another. Why? Because our mutual relationships have been rebuilt in the redemption of Christ, and the church becomes a kingdom where we love one another to reflect the kingdom of the gospel.
During this gathering, I have met many I never knew. When we meet, whether acquaintances or not, we exchange greetings. Would you do this to strangers on the street? I think not! We sense the Holy Spirit has empowered us to have such a joy when we encounter brothers and sisters that we want to approach and establish a relationship them. Why? Because our relationships have been rebuilt in Jesus Christ. Wherever sin is present, there are broken relationships. Wherever the gospel is upheld, there are restored relationships. Just as the Lord Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” What Jesus means is that if the disciples love one another, they testify to his gospel. Christian relationships are in the gospel. Without the gospel, the relationship must be unhealthy.
Proper discipleship is related to living out the gospel. If you refuse to build gospel-centered relationships with other Christians, you reject vital growth in Christ. In order to be whole, our physical parts must be connected and held properly. In order to have a healthy church body, we have to commune with other Christians. Acts 2 tells us the disciples fellowshipped with one another, prayed together, received their food with glad and generous hearts, and praised God together. The Bible commends this fellowship as pleasing to God and enjoyable: living out the gospel attracted people. Day by day, more people came to the Lord. To draw nonbelievers to the Lord, church members must build gospel-centered relationships. A church that loves one another and upholds the gospel is also a vitally growing church.
This kind of discipleship can only be developed from an accurate view of the church. We must understand discipleship’s relationship with our view of the church, specifically from the perspective of the local church.
Discipleship and the local church
Through the redemption of Jesus, our relationships with God and with other believers have been restored. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, ethnicity nor social class. This unity in Christ must be realized specifically in the local church. The local church is the only place where we can witness how the gospel creates new relationships, families, communities, and a kingdom. Some Christians dream of attending a different church with a famous pastor. Those Christians are like scornful children who feel they are being mistreated by their parents and instead prefer others’ parents. The local church is the place where we should attend services, glorify God, and grow spiritually. Whether it is thriving or dwindling, God has placed us there, so that is the best place for us. In order to continually practice the commands to love one another and live out our faith, we must commit to a local body.
Some Christians do not attend church services, but join a small group. I asked one of them, “Why don’t you go to church?” He said, “We regularly get together to study the Bible and sing hymns; this gathering is much more harmonious.” There are also some Christians who do not join a small group or attend church. They merely enjoy personal connections with a few other believers, saying they find more benefit in casual relationships. A Christian who does not attend church to worship God is, in my opinion, not a true believer.
Small group and one-on-one discipleship are only parts of the entire church ecosystem. Discipleship is knitted closely together with pastoral supervision, teaching and preaching, church governance, and other church ministries. Its intent is to enhance our involvement in the local church, rather than alienate us from the church. Discipleship aims to build church members up into the body of Christ. Because of this, discipleship apart from the church is questionable.
I do not usually encourage a member of one local church to do discipleship in another church, although of course it is helpful for the pastor of one church to help train another church’s pastor. Discipleship with members of different churches must be done with the consent and supervision of both pastors. Otherwise, doctrinal and governance differences may lead one member to doubt and dissatisfaction, and damage the relationship between the two churches. We often find Christians who refuse relationship within their own church, instead focusing on relationships with believers in other churches, while criticizing their own church. This is a problem.
I also disapprove of parachurch organizations that are not committed to the local church. These institutions are doing discipleship without involvement in a local church. In Matthew 16, Jesus does not say he is going to establish an institution. He says he is going to establish his church. Therefore, parachurch organizations are not in line with the local church. These organization should be committed to and accept supervision from the church.
I knew of one Christian organization devoted to college ministry. They provided one-on-one mentoring and developed many fellowship groups. But on Sundays, the students from this organization attended different church services. Yet once they returned to campus, they belonged to the same campus fellowship. These students looked lightly upon the local church. They valued personal relationships, and thought the pastors’ sermons were not as good as the teaching of their fellowship staff.
Later, some of the ministers and staff of this organization engaged in critical reflection on their ministry. They found that many college students were enthusiastic in their faith and eager to receive discipleship training. In spite of this, when these students graduated and entered society, getting involved in church life was a challenge. They backslid in their faith, and the attrition was very significant. The students liked to attend campus fellowship groups and engage in one-on-one discipleship, but they did not enjoy church. They felt church services were full of liturgy and lacked intimate communion. They were not committed to church life, so they were not healthy. While these students received years of discipleship, their discipleship might have become a stumbling block that hindered their growth in becoming healthy and vigorous Christians.
Translation provided by Jane and the China Partnership team.
Why is it important for discipleship to have both the preaching of Scripture through sermons as well as strong small groups and individual discipleship?
Why might discipleship with only one of these elements be insufficient to form believers in the image of Christ?